Teaching Medical Students to Become Better Communicators Through Writing

UCR medical students use "Powerwriting" technique to learn to become well rounded, competent physicians

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – From illegible prescriptions to signatures that resemble a seismograph during an earthquake, physicians are notorious for their poor handwriting. But for many, penmanship is not the only writing issue they have.

“Many medical doctors have a difficult time communicating their thoughts through writing. This can lead to struggles in other types of communicating, such as with the patient or their team,” said Maegen Dupper, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine. “At most medical schools, the first two years are spent on bookwork and memorization. But here at UCR we are integrating clinical critical thinking and clinical-style education from the first day of their medical training.”

“Our mission is to train students to be doctors who can communicate effectively with their patients and who have empathy for what the patient is going through,” she added.

That was why on a recent morning, about 50 first and second year medical students at the UCR School of Medicine found themselves in a large classroom, usually reserved for lectures on human biology and disease, using a technique called “powerwriting” to recall a recent experience with a patient in a clinical setting.

The course is co-taught by Dupper and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Goldberry Long and is part of a growing trend of medicine reaching out to the humanities to create well-rounded, competent physicians.

The UCR program is part of the school’s unique Longitudinal Ambulatory Care Experience (LACE) curriculum, which combines pre-clinical education with clinical training and practical application of public health content. The core competencies include systems-based practice, scholarship, patient care, community population health, interpersonal and communication skills, and professionalism.

“At most medical schools, the curriculum includes reflective experiences writing during the third and fourth years. The problem is that if the students don’t already have the basic writing skill set, they are unlikely to develop it during those stressful years,” Long said.

“Our goal is to guide these students to become the type of doctors who think about what they write in the patient’s chart, why they are writing it, and about who will read it next. I want them to consider any personal bias that they may be including in that chart, and also to think about the patient’s perspective, what it is like to live with that illness,” Dupper said. “It also helps them communicate with other health care providers on the team beyond the written word.”

Through powerwriting, Long encourages the students to develop their reflective writing skills through self-monitoring and meta-cognition.

“The idea behind this technique is to improve their meta-cognitive skills through awareness of their actions, the effects of those actions, and the willingness to use the information to influence their decision making process in the future.” Long said.

In addition, the course teaches medical students about general writing strategies, including patient documentation and understanding the audiences of medical charts.

The course hasn’t necessarily been a favorite of medical students, but Dupper and Long agreed that they are hearing more positive responses from students who have applied the skills in the field

“A writing course doesn’t necessarily fit into a student’s preconceived expectation of what should be taught in medical school,” Dupper said. “This class isn’t just about writing – this is about learning how to think. These skills are just as important, and in some cases more important, than any of the medical ‘factoids’ that they will memorize.”

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-2969
E-mail: ross.french@ucr.edu

Additional Contacts

Maegen Dupper
Tel: (951) 827-7808
E-mail: maegen.dupper@medsch.ucr.edu

Goldberry Long
Tel: (951) 827-5424
E-mail: goldberry.long@ucr.edu

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